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‘Covid-19 has exposed precarious funding arrangements’

The pandemic dominates our second collection of reflections on Ottoline Leyser’s task at UKRI

This is the second of three articles discussing the priorities and challenges facing Ottoline Leyser as she becomes chief executive of UK Research and Innovation. Read part one here and part three here

‘Champion long-term funding’

UK Research and Innovation operates an R&D engine room that this government has put at the heart of its economic plans. Its leadership will be critical as we navigate our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and a new chapter outside the European Union. This makes Ottoline Leyser’s appointment a welcome one.

With a government committed to funding mission-driven science, UKRI must continue to nurture creative, curiosity-led basic research. This has been central to the sustained success of UK science, and it is where tomorrow’s breakthrough technologies will come from.

UKRI must champion long-term funding and investment in world-leading facilities and infrastructure as a priority for all political parties, and foster greater interdisciplinarity.

All of this will be necessary to maintain the UK’s reputation as a progressive, outward facing, scientific leader, at the heart of global collaboration and attractive to the best international talent.

The coronavirus crisis poses a serious threat to many charities and smaller funding bodies. UKRI should look at what measures are needed to stabilise the system and provide security for overseas students, postdocs and early-career researchers whose funders are unable to extend their funding period.

There is also scope for improving the funding process. Ensuring that grant proposals are reviewed by scientists of the highest calibre is vital to ensuring that the best research is funded in the UK.

Having a female researcher at the head of the UK’s major funding body is also important in its own right. UKRI has considerable resources and influence across the sector to help address the barriers faced by too many scientists because of their gender, ethnicity, or other factors.

Venki Ramakrishnan is the president of the Royal Society


‘Investigate the pandemic’s effects on research culture’

In its first two years, UK Research and Innovation has shown itself willing to act as a regulator of research as well as a funder, apparently ready to take on issues related to research culture, such as bullying and harassment, and researchers’ wellbeing.

Covid-19 and the lockdown have brought massive and unforeseen challenges to research culture. Its effect has been to reinforce existing inequalities in productivity and progression and to create new ones between those who have the time, resources, and physical and emotional space to work effectively from home and those who don’t.

Women, working around significantly increased hidden caring and domestic duties, and people living with mental health difficulties or in poor living conditions, have been disproportionately affected.

If we wait to see how these differential impacts play out on the outputs, careers and mental health of academics in the long term, before seeking to address them as our research infrastructure responds to the challenges caused by the pandemic, it will be too late. A generation of careers will be blighted, and some fields will suffer.

As she takes the helm at UKRI, one of Ottoline Leyser’s first acts should be to initiate an investigation into the pandemic’s effects on research culture, access to funding, productivity, and researchers’ wellbeing. Actions should also include a discussion and evidence-based plan of how to mitigate the uneven consequences of a more permanent shift to remote working.

Traditional definitions of excellence in funding decisions have been coming under pressure in recent years from several directions. They need to be further questioned in light of the structural, cultural and regional inequalities they reflect and the inequalities they help reproduce.

The pandemic presents new challenges, but also opportunities to confront these inequalities in redefining Britain’s future research culture.

Eszter Szilassy is a research fellow at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol


‘Drive positive action and correct biases’

UK Research and Innovation is relatively young and still evolving as a funding organisation. This gives Ottoline Leyser a fantastic opportunity to shape its culture and direction.

I imagine delivery of the government’s industrial strategy and the target of increasing R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP remain high on UKRI’s list of priorities. However, Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have amplified and highlighted systematic inequalities in society.

UKRI’s implementation of the industrial strategy, its policy framework and organisational governance should be shaped to address these. I look forward to seeing the agency’s strategy for equality, diversity and inclusion, and hope to see funding used to drive positive action and correct biases.

Data for 2018-19 show that only 140 out of 21,000 professors identified as black, and less than a quarter of these are women.

The industrial strategy aims to address regional disparities, but apart from the Strength in Places Fund, it is not clear how UKRI will support this agenda. Leyser should heed the recommendations in Tom Forth and Richard Jones’s excellent report, The Missing £4 Billion, and consider the purpose, formula and balance of quality-related funding.
I also hope that Leyser can persuade the government to make the Advanced Research Projects Agency part of UKRI. This would increase efficiencies, reduce bureaucracy and provide coherent oversight of the funding landscape.
Finally, Covid-19 has exposed universities’ precarious funding arrangements, where international student fees subsidise research. There has never been a better time for UKRI to prioritise funding 100 per cent of the full economic costs of research.

Steph Bales is director of research and innovation services at Teesside University, and chair of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators


‘Strengthen Innovate UK’

This is a time of uncertainty and challenge for research and innovation in the UK—from the sustainability of universities and the survival of vital R&D intensive industries to the as-yet unknown future relationship with the EU and the continued response to Covid-19.

UK Research and Innovation’s response to the pandemic, under the guidance of Mark Walport, has been swift and agile. I hope this experience will inform how UKRI operates in the future.

Yet the UK also has great opportunities, with a government that wishes to make R&D and innovation fundamental to our economic development. Here Ottoline Leyser has a crucial and influential part to play. I would like to see this include strengthening Innovate UK, empowering the agency to fully realise the wider socioeconomic benefits and productivity gains that flow from R&D across the UK. 

Leyser’s appointment also represents an opportunity to continue to work towards a core founding purpose of UKRI: a strategic vision with more cross-working between research councils and disciplines. A stronger and more unified UKRI will be better equipped to help us tackle major challenges, as the response to Covid-19 showed.  

I value and share Leyser’s long-standing commitment to diversity and equality, and want to ensure the UK has a world-leading, truly diverse and inclusive engineering workforce. The academy looks forward to working with UKRI to make that a reality.

Jim McDonald is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight